Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Digital Denial Devices

It doesn't take more than a casual perusal of the daily news to frighten the hell out of most people. Whether it's a war in Iraq, nuclear ambitions or Iran or the pathetic sabre rattling of North Korea, we can always rely on the media to bring us one more reason to declare life on earth at the edge of disaster.

If it's not a celebrity fiasco, it's a pedophile priest. If it's not the poison in your food, it's the newly-documented pseudo-science contradicting last week's "scientific study" on whatever was supposed to kill you this week. In an effort to fill their "all news, all the time" formats, networks have foregone journalistic impartiality and truth, opting instead for faux "news analyses": panels of "experts" who add little new information while pouring on lots of bias all in the interest of plugging their latest books. We get baseless predictions. Sermons. And lots of yelling. But no real news.

Not surprisingly, America has had enough pseudo-news. They're tired of it. And while any case involving the disappearance of a child is heart-rending at best, the fact that it happens in Orlando is, in truth, of no real consequence to anyone living in Seattle or Des Moines. There's simply too much unimportant news getting reported. And it's having a bigger effect on your brand than you might think.

As we speak, an increasing number of Americans are scurrying into their own little worlds, desperate to escape news that's always bad and usually irrelevant. They spend more and more time cocooning where they can find shelter from mass media, protected by Digital Denial Devices. -- or as I prefer to call them, D3's. No matter where you look, technology is enabling them, allowing to plug and play the things they want to hear and see, when they choose to hear and see them.

The internet is a fabulous D3. Not only do you get to hear the news when you want to hear it, you also get the news you want to hear. Far from delivering its early advocates promise of "equal access to information", the web has proven itself much more efficient as a propaganda tool. If you don't like the spin al Jazeera twists on Israel, no problem. Simply point your browser at debka.com for the pro-Israel viewpoint. Better yet, compose your Yahoo or Google start page with RSS feeds from only those news sources whose political viewpoints support your own. That way, you can start every day substantiating the illusion that you're in sync with the rest of the world.

Only you're not. And that's destroying your brand. Read on.

Cell phones and Blackberries are terrific D3's. It's now gotten to the point where nobody thinks twice of invading other people's spaces by "taking this call" and then yammering on for hours in their own self-interest as if nobody else is in the room. More complete disrespect for other human beings. More perfect denial. And it gets worse.

Parents throughout the country wake up every morning to drive carpools to schools. The cars are filled with kids, yet the car is strangely quiet. There is no conversation. No human interaction. There can't be, because the kids who used to talk to each other are all plugged into their iPods, each one listening to the kind of music that only they appreciate. There is no compromise. No recognition of other people's likes and dislikes. Just more denial of other people's existence.

The kids that aren't plugged into iPods have their eyes and ears locked in on their Gameboys, too busy to notice anyone or anything nearby. And thousands of families drive hundreds of miles on road trip vacations, but never without the DVD players built into the roof: Never mind what's out the window. It's what's on the screen that counts. The Suburban could drive past Mount Rushmore and nobody would so much as notice, because "this is the part where her throat gets slashed."

Don't get me wrong. I love technology. I think it's terrific. In fact, I couldn't earn a living without it. What's killing me - and the world - are these Digital Denial Devices. They're killing us because they give us the opportunity to not care about anything else around us. As long as our own needs are fulfilled, as long as we get the news, listen to the music and watch the shows that we want, we really don't care about anything or anyone else.

And that's bad. Bad for your brand. Bad for the world.

It's bad for the world, because when people cease to involve themselves with other human beings, they also fail to keep pace with other people's wants and needs. By sequestering themselves behind D3's, they create the illusion that all is well and that the rest of the world is in sync with them, rather than the other way around. Keep that up and not too long after, worlds collide. The next thing you know, westerners in denial wake up wondering why radical muslims from an equally closed society are pronouncing death sentences on Americans. In return, fortressed Americans gear up their defenses, sending hundreds of thousands of American kids to "protect our way of life."

The sad truth is that it's all fairly avoidable. If technology were used for inclusion and exposure, instead of exclusion and narrow focus, the world's population would be raised on tolerance for differences. They would accept differences among cultures as easily as they currently reject them, because they'd have been exposed to them on a daily basis.

That's not happening. In fact, marketers, media and advertising technology is pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Hailed in the name of efficiency, techno-dopes trumpet their talents for seeking out "only those an advertiser needs to hit", not realizing their efforts only further the trend of digital denial. That's not only harmful to humanity, it's harmful to your brand. Here's why:

For a brand to truly succeed, it had to be perceived as "the only solution to their problem." But for a brand to thrive, it has to be evangelized as "the only solution to their problem." People have to interact and share information. They have to communicate. If they don't, there's no way they can articulate and share information -- including how terrific your brand is.

Al Gore likes to claim that global climate change is the single most crucial moral issue of our time. He's wrong. What's the point of changing the weather, if there's nobody left to discuss it with?

More at http://www.RobFrankel.com

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Britney, Anna and Branding

So I'm having a perfectly wonderful Sunday lunch and the phone rings. It's a reporter from the New York Daily News. The big news flash is that Britney Spears has shaved her head. Holy cow, this is big. Never mind that over a hundred more innocent Iraqi citizens have become human jigsaw puzzles thanks to yet another crazed homicide bomber. Or that massacres still occur daily in Darfur. No, the big story in the good old USA is that Britney has gone G.I. Jane and buzzed off her locks.

Phew. For a moment there, I was beginning to think that the nation was going to veer off course and not solve the paternity of our latest celebrity corpse, Anna Nicole Smith. Fortunately, the Britney story only lasted a few days. Within a reasonable amount of time, we were back to the really important issues. Like whether Anna's kid was really fathered by yet another corpse -- her somewhat fossilized oil man husband.

No matter to the reporter. We had a great chat, because hers was the only interview in which even a semi-reasonable question was put forth: Was Britney going to lose her sponsors over this? What's the real message of her mental melt-down?

I'm glad she asked. Because the real point of this story isn't about hair. Or corpses. Or America's incessant morbid interests in all the wrong stories. The real point is why American business -- otherwise so incredibly risk-averse -- continues to trust their brands to human celebrities.

What has TrimSpa learned from Anna Nicole that they couldn't have learned from Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, Kobe Bryant or, this week at least, Britney Spears?

The answer is simple: They don't think. You can tell, because if they did think about it, they'd come up with the reasons why the very last person you'd ever want to entrust with your brand is an attention whore. The worst person in the world you can tie in with is a celebrity, because these people are not only approval addicts, they're among the most mentally unstable attention addicts.

Put it this way: If you were to pit your own brand against a Hollywood halfwit whose entire purpose in life is to garner as much attention and approval as humanly possible, who do you think would come out the winner? Can't you just see the actors elbowing their way in front of the camera? And yet, even as they steal all that valuable media time from the products and services they pitch, actors continue to win sweet endorsement deals that rarely, if ever, pay out for the sponsors.

Think I'm wrong, do ya? Fine. Why did the Gap insist on driving down sales with Sarah Jessica Parker? And what was Chrysler thinking when they signed Celine Dion to hawk cars? And both of them got paid millions for campaigns that lasted about an hour. I've seen fruit flies live longer.

Let's get just a little more personal about it. How would you feel if the star you to whom you were paying millions of dollars to push your brand, suddenly were caught in the headlines accused of sacking out with underage boys? How about your weight loss queen waking up dead in a hotel room? Or your perfumed rock star undergoing a nervous breakdown in public?

How does American business -- among the most risk-averse managers in the world -- continue to pursue spokespeople with the mental and emotional stability of Jello to promote and associate with their brands? That's like letting Michael Jackson babysit your kid.

Personally, I have no axe to grind with someone shaving their head. But if Britney wanted to Yul Brynner look, why not stay home and have a party in private, out of camera view? I'll tell you why: Because even when they're completely wacked out, totally gone and around the bend, celebrity attention whores still can't get enough attention. Better to get attention while you're spiraling out of control than no attention at all, I suppose.

Everyone is so busy analyzing Britney's mental state. As usual, they're looking in the wrong place. The real mental problems aren't with the celebrities. The real mental problems are with the corporate managers who hire them.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Political Brands: Why Gavin Newsom is hosed

If you're at all tuned into what passes for news, you could not have missed this week's most salacious item: San Francisco's city slicker mayor, Gavin Newsom, went before the cameras to admit that he indeed has been having a sexual affair. At first, the most shocking element of the story was that, San Francisco being what it is, the affair was heterosexual in nature. Newsom presented himself to the media with a grand mea culpa, admitting to his lapse in judgment and asking the good people of the city to stick by him.

Methinks not.

It's one thing to for a single man to mess his mousse every once in a while with a blonde or two. I don't think anyone has a problem with that. And since Newsom divorced his FOX news reporter wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle (a brunette), he's certainly free to play the field as he wishes. My hat's off to any straight male in San Francisco, even when he's dating actresses, Scientology converts or twenty-something restaurant hostesses.

I don't think the people of San Francisco have a problem with that.

The fact that Newsom admitted to doing the horizontal mambo with a married woman throws an interesting spin on things. Sure, some far-right conservatives will throw the Family Values book at him, but the nation as a whole will spot him on that one, especially those who have been married longer than five minutes. Man being the sexual animal he is, married to the sexual animals they are, I suppose that breaking the monotony by occasionally bedding a mayor can be tolerated. As a matter of fact, I'd be willing to bet that were Bill Clinton running for president today, nobody would really hold anything against him the way he held Monica against himself.

The thing is, there's no unforgivable sin attached to the sexual liaison between Newsom and his paramour, Ruby Rippey-Tourk - wife of Newsom's most trusted political advisor. They're two attractive people evidently sexually attracted to each other. If nobody had found out about their tryst, nobody would have gotten hurt. It happens every day, to millions of people across the country. A simple affair with a married woman won't kill your political brand. But here's what will:

The fact that it's a simple affair with the wife of your best friend.

Americans can forgive just about anything, but they won't forgive disloyalty. Not from their friends and certainly not from a politician. They won't tolerate an abuse of trust. And what Newsom did to his chief aide and pal, Alex Tourk, immediately ripped into the hearts and minds of every American who heard the story. They take this kind of stuff personally, as if it could happen to them -- because it could, or very probably, already has.

Nobody cares about Newsom dipping his wick. Everyone cares about deceiving and stabbing your best friend in the back. And if he could do that to his very best friend, it means he could do it to anyone, any time, any place.

That's why his political brand is completely bankrupt of any future value. He's done. Finished. And if the good people of San Francisco tolerate his deception by re-electiing him, they are, as Harry Truman once said, "a bigger bunch of suckers than I think you are."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Dell & Jobs Prove Caretakers Can't Manage

Well, now you've seen it two times. Two technology companies, each inspired by the vision of their founders, growing at spectacular rates and changing the nature of their markets. The first time, it was Steve Jobs (and Steve Wozniak) with Apple Computer. The second time, it was Michael Dell with Dell Computer.

In both cases, these visionaries imagined a different, better way of doing things. With its ease of use and simple interface, Apple was the "computer for the rest of us." With its direct marketing and customer service, Dell revolutionized the PC space. Jobs saw things differently. So did Dell.

The markets rewarded each handsomely. Both became zillionaires and the darlings of their respective operating systems. Magazines featured them in cover stories and investors cheered them for growing their portfolios.

And then, the inevitable happened: Both Dell and Jobs left their companies for others to manage. In Jobs' case, the parting wasn't all that friendly. A long line of Caretaker Managers - people who have no clue as to what brand value or strategy truly is - attempted to drive the company forward. They almost drove it into its grave.

Caretaker Managers, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, are CEO's with three year contracts who stay on the job just long enough to collect their bonuses at the expense of the companies that hire them. They typically have no brand sense or vision. They usually "restore the company to profitability" by cutting costs, rather than increasing revenue. After the first year of cost cuts, profitability does reappear, but revenues drop, as well. By the second year, the cuts dramatically affect the company's ability to perform, which is no longer of any consequence to the Caretaker Manager, because his contract is about to end and his executive recruiter already has another corporate victim lined up.

John Sculley, Michael Spindler, Gil Amelio and the rest of their crew who knew nothing about Apple's true core brand ethic, strove to drive their traditional, square-peg strategies into Apple's round holes. With each offensive, each Caretaker Manager's tactics only made things worse. Pundits predicted the imminent demise of Apple on a weekly basis. It only got better when Apple finally woke up, kicked out the Caretakers and brought Jobs back in.

Now the same thing is happening to Dell. Once the pride of the direct marketing model, Dell's famous, fabulous customer service - the very quality that distinguished it from the rest of the pack - had fallen victim to the same kind of cost-cutting insanity that plagues most Caretaker Managers. Dell became a shadow of its former self, prompting the board to dump its current Caretaker CEO, Kevin Rollins, whose accomplishments, according to the AFP, included the following:

"In the nearly three years that Rollins headed the Texas-based firm, it lost its dominant position in computer sales to California-based rival Hewlett-Packard and came under scrutiny for questionable accounting practices."

Three years. That's how long it took Rollins to undo 20 years of Michael Dell's success. Which is the reason why the Board decided to call Michael Dell back into resume his post as CEO.

Seeing a pattern here? Look around the place, and you'll see a disturbingly similar trend of high-paid mediocrity running rampant throughout American industry, the only country in the world where a failure the likes of Robert Nardelli can take home $250 million bucks for actually failing to do his job.

Throughout Washington D.C., we hear about how illegal immigration and terrorism will destroy our economy and our way of life. We hear about how sex and drugs and rock and roll are eating away at our national morals. Hardly. If you really want to see how the country is rotting from the inside out, you have to start at the top. The Caretaker Managers are running amok.

And their Threat Level to the country is a bright neon red.